Stop the end-run on student service

September 30, 1992

"It ain't over til it's over," said Yogi Berra, who never met the Maryland legislature.

After much deliberation, the State Board of Education recently voted to make Maryland the first state to require students to perform community service. The issue was contentious. Supporters contend the initiative will help youngsters gain a better understanding of their community. Opponents claim it's "mandatory volunteerism" and, with a straight face, compare it to slavery.

Most school boards, superintendents and teacher unions focused on how the change would affect their workload rather than how it might benefit students. In the end, the state board risked offending some people in the hope of reaching youngsters more effectively. That should have ended the matter.

But now Senators Frederick Malkus Jr. of Dorchester County and Charles Smelser of Frederick County have made noises about killing the measure in the next legislative session. Del. John Gary of Anne Arundel wrote the state superintendent of his plans to try again to scuttle the requirement. The irony is that the same conservatives who stress "family values" are fighting a plan fashioned to impart examples of worthy values to teens.

The politicians who will try to smother this requirement plan to argue that Maryland is too broke to afford volunteer service in the schools. But some of them also opposed this idea when Maryland was swimming in revenue.

Cost estimates from the counties vary widely. Montgomery County, always a leader in education, produced an estimate of 18 cents for each pupil. Dorchester County, at the other end, estimated $107 per child, and Anne Arundel estimated $104 per student, saying it would need $1.7 million in new hires. It's hard to believe the same legislators who pride themselves on being tight with a buck are philosophically aligned with the school systems that submitted those bloated figures. One more instance of strange bedfellows is that some school boards, which normally abhor politicians' "micro-managing" education, will embrace any legislative end-run to kill the student-service requirement.

There are mixed messages here. The public demands bold initiatives that are light on costly new infrastructure or equipment; when these are produced, those same people decry the move as an unfair burden. The community at large agrees that we need to help young people find their way in an unstable world, and yet some people continue to fight an idea that attempts to do just that.

If there's a better approach, we'd like to hear it. Until then, legislators determined not to give this plan a chance ought to back off.

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